‘Foot – foot – foot – foot – sloggin’ over Africa — / (Boots – boots – boots – boots – movin’ up and down again!).’ I do like Rudyard Kipling. I know I’m not supposed to. Trigger warning: empire, jungle stereotypes, microaggressions against monkeys, cultural appropriation of other people’s elephants. But what a stomping great marching poem ‘Boots’ is.
Learn at least the first verse by heart: it’s the right rhythm for walking when the rain comes on and you’re miles from home. Boots–boots–boots–boots. Imagine the dust stamped up from the veld. The other one to sing under your breath in a downpour is: ‘She’ll be comin’ round the mountain (when she comes).’ It rouses even the dampest spirits.
You can brave any weather with the right boots, and British boots are the best in the world. They must be waterproof. None of this rubbish about ‘water-protected’. That’s what shoe shops say about boots to get you from the front door to the bus stop. Fine for mizzle and a puddle, but not up to Sunday walks in the mire. You want the tough stuff: ‘Gore-Tex’, ‘all-weather’, ‘rubber membrane’.
I learnt the hard way. For a walking holiday on the Sussex Downs I pitched up in ten-year-old Russell & Bromleys. Soles, heels and laces replaced each time they wore thin. Never a crack in the leather. And, damn them, they leaked. Half an hour into the first morning, halfway up a hill. The first heart-sinking squelch. Then three hours’ walking until lunch, socks soggier every step. Squelch — squelch — squelch — squelch — sloggin’ over Eastbourne cliffs. That decided me. No more high-street lace-ups. I went to Clarks for the first time since nursery shoe-fittings, and bought a pair of Gore-Tex walkers. Stand ankle-deep in a fjord and not a drop gets through. They’re not chic, though. For that, there’s Dubarry. Founded in 1937, it celebrates its 80th birthday this year. There’s something reassuring about Irish boots: proof against peat bogs. Not technically British, I know, but I’ve tested my pair against our native marshes and they are ark-tight. (You do, however, go skating on ice.)
The Duchess of Cambridge wears Le Chameau wellingtons from Normandy, which is not very patriotic. Hunter wellies hold the royal warrant, though the sheen has been rubbed off by 1 Glastonbury pouters and by cabinet ministers responding with money-no-object urgency to winter floods.
There is no greater misery or privation than cold, wet feet. Reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles again last winter I thought: I can bear it. The assault, the baby, the little grave, abandoned on her honeymoon, the turnip farm. But when Mercy Chant takes Tess’s boots hidden in the hedge to give to the poor… that was too much for me. Oh, Tessy!